Speaker Says Second Amendment Misinterpreted by Gun Activists

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Both conservative and liberal groups have misinterpreted the Second Amendment’s position on gun rights, according to Professor Akhil Reed Amar.

He addressed the issue during his speech “The Second Amendment: A Case Study in Constitutional Interpretation” for the College of Law’s 36th annual William H. Leary Lecture.

“To both conservatives who now love the Second Amendment, and liberals who now loathe it, I say, think again: The amendment may not quite mean what you thought,” he said.

Before the killings at Columbine High School, the National Rifle Association had the votes and the cash to win the debate, he said. However, the killings triggered a large amount of debate about gun control.

He began by discussing the wording of the amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The structure of the two clauses, referring to ‘militia’ and ‘people,’ are the center of the gun-rights debate, he said.

The “gun controllers” read the amendment as meaning only the government can establish professional state militias. On the contrary, “gun groups” believe it reads every individual has the right to carry a gun, he said.

“Both readings are wrong,” he said.

He argued that the Second Amendment needs to reflect the American electorate?once only composed of white men, women and minorities are now members of this group.

Amar interpreted the term, “people” as citizens with the right to vote and actively participate in government.

“In a sound republic, the ‘people’ and the ‘militia’ are one and the same: Those who vote, serve in the military and those who serve, vote,” he said.

Although the word, “people,” may be thought of as a collective noun for “person,” the two words have different meanings.

“Women in 1787 had the right of ‘persons’?such as freedom to worship and protection of privacy in their homes?but did not directly participate in the acts of ‘the people’?they did not vote in constitutional conventions or for Congress, nor were they the part of the militia/people at the heart of the Second Amendment.”

He also spoke about the “distinctly military phrase: bear arms.

“A deer hunter or target shooter carries a gun, but does not, properly speaking, bear arms,” he said.

However, since the Bill of Rights was drafted, the social structure has drastically changed in the United States.

“To see all this is to see what makes the Second Amendment so slippery today: The legal and social structure on which the amendment was built no longer exists,” Amar said.

The Second Amendment requires more prudence than many of the other amendments, he said.

During incarceration and after release, a violent felon has the right to free speech, but he does not have the right to own a gun.

Also, the difference in firearms is quite large. When the Bill of Rights was written, single-fire muskets were the only guns available. Now, a single person can kill a dozen people in a few short moments.

Also, the founders were working within a completely different government.

“The Founders acted and wrote in a world where democratic self-government had never truly existed on a continental scale. Then conventional wisdom associated liberty and democracy with localism, and linked geographically expansive regimes with empire and tyranny,” Amar said.

People must keep the past timeframe in mind when interpreting the Second Amendment.

“Contrary to libertarian ideology and the NRA credo, neither hunting nor individual self defense lay at the core of the founders’ Second Amendment,” he said.

History does provide some support for this reading, but it comes from the reconstruction after the Civil War, he said.

Citizens were encouraged to own a gun because police could not be trusted to keep black citizens safe. This mentality has deeply rooted itself in the ethics of America, he said.

Now, the militia referred to by the founders has been replaced by police departments and the United States’ military defense.

However, regardless of the social context, citizens’ involvement in the government is crucial.

“In order to rule, people must retain ultimate control over all institutions of government,” he said. “Ideally, the people should participate in all branches of government.”

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